The Representation Question
January 6, 2020
Kassia Neckles is in her second year of study at the University of Toronto where she double majors in English and Cinema Studies.
Many of my early-to-mid childhood memories are of my mother and I going to our local Cineplex on Saturdays, a venture more feasible at a time when admission was six dollars, much lower than it now is.
But it wasn’t until I was nine years old that I felt represented on the screen, during a screening of the Princess and the Frog.
I sat in the dark auditorium; my short legs only charitable enough to let my feet just peek over the edge of my chair. I imagine I wore my favourite periwinkle sweater because I always did, despite—or, rather, indicated by—its butterfly emblem missing half its sequins.
The company logos emerged and quickly faded away. Within moments, I found myself face-to-face with Tiana, Disney’s first – and, to this day, only – Black princess. The film’s opening scene takes place in an early portion of the storyline in which Tiana can’t be more than ten-years-old. As I watched her sit in her bedroom, listening to her mother tell her a bedtime story, I might as well have been looking at a mirror.
I watched, almost unblinkingly, for the ninety-eight minutes of Tiana cascading across the screen, of Tiana singing to her heart’s content, of Tiana falling in love, of Tiana Tiana-ing.
Ariel and Mulan and Belle became princesses of the past. Stepping out of the theatre – stomach full of popcorn and iced tea – I knew that Tiana had taken the mantle as my favourite Disney princess.
And accordingly, I vocally lauded her as such. Yes, I would assure my girlfriends, Cinderella did have a fairy godmother who granted her every wish. But she wasn’t Tiana. Beyond the innocent debates like these, I was, in all serious senses, uncontested.
That was until a fateful February day when I was twelve years old.
I was with my school at a local skating rink, celebrating Carnaval as we annually did. But, as everyone whizzed around on the ice, I sat on the sidelines. I couldn’t skate.
Keeping me company was a boy we will call Steve, a fellow non-skater. I thought kindly of him; we were “friends” in the twelve-year-old sense of the word, meaning we were more like acquaintances. I found him amusing, mostly because his clipped speech, his thick corduroy pants, and the red ascot attached to his neck made him seem like a forty-year-old in the body of an adolescent boy.
Eventually, as I tended to, I asked him the burning question: “Who’s your favourite Disney princess?”
I watched people whizz by on the ice behind Steve as he mulled over the question. I watched — with a scratch of skates and flurry of scarves — a few fall.
“I don’t have one,” he said, finally.
“That’s okay,” I assured him. But I was also sure to tell him: “Mine’s Tiana.”
A few minutes passed and, abruptly, an accusation came from Steve’s lips.
“You only like her because she’s Black,” he said.
However mundane, however innocent this statement seemed coming from the mouth of a twelve-year-old boy, it is one that has stuck with me for years – seven, in fact. And I’ve realized that the reason this statement has stuck with me for so long is that it isn’t mundane, nor innocent. It speaks to greater derision within the subconscious of white audiences even from youth – that is, a deep-seated, perhaps unwitting, hostility toward Blackness in film.
For eons, black people didn’t even have the right to portray
themselves on-screen. As reminiscent of minstrel shows in which white actors overdrew dramatic red lips on themselves and covered their faces in dark pigment, many early portrayals of Black people have actually been, well, by white people. By the time Laurence Fishburne portrayed Othello in an eponymous motion picture in 1995, for example, there had already been four English-language iterations of the Black general portrayed by a white man in blackface.
Sidney Poitier, who rose to prominence around the 1950s, was the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor, and a general revolutionary of Black visibility in cinema. Poitier notably rejected roles that played into rampant stereotypes about Black people, instead opting to portray personalities characterized by gentlemanliness and slowness to anger. However ironically, in doing so, Poitier’s characters tended to play in line with the limiting nature of respectability politics, still leaving the visibility of Black people on-screen relatively monolithic and limited.
Cue the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which saw the respective emergence of Black auteurs like Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, and John Singleton. These filmmakers continued to work in representing Blackness in the film, from Burnett’s attempt to dismantle prominent stereotypes about Black people to Lee’s zany exploration of Black life. While these strides were significant, these filmmakers still swam among a sea of white directors, with their lenses into Black life acting as the sole ones. The Black experience in cinema remained limited.
Some call the current era of Black cinema a “Renaissance” or “Golden Age” of sorts. Directors like Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler have emerged as auteurs of Oscar-nominated films and blockbuster content and have even begun to redefine entire genres. Black cinema has broadened to encompass superheroes, horror film characters who aren’t the first to die, and traversers of fantasy worlds.
As a matter of fact, the depiction of Black people on-screen in general has increased to the point that it is proportional to that of real-world demographics. UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report, which “examines 174 theatrical films released in 2016” has found that Blacks, making up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, made up 12.5 percent of roles in 2016 films.
But is proportionality the crux of representation?
The definition of the word “representation” is nebulous; a disambiguation page on Wikipedia suggests that the word can refer to everything from politics to cognitive science and mathematics. Representation, in the context of arts and film, is still relatively vague. Oxford Dictionaries, for example, simply defines the term as “the depiction of someone or something in a work of art.”
Given this vagueness, it probably seems logical to see representation as necessitating quantifiability. If the percentage of a demographic in a real-world location is equal or similar to that of the percentage of their presence on-screen, then the issue of the lack of representation is solved, right? This idea has led some to deem Black people’s call for more representation as exorbitant, greedy even. Under Vox’s post “The 2019 Oscars Broke Boundaries, Especially for Women of Colour,” Facebook user Barco do Inferno quipped: “Now that black people and immigrants won [Oscars] what will be the next thing snowflakes will be bitching around [sic]?”
Lauren Cramer, a film scholar and professor at The University of Toronto, sees a level of hypocrisy in this numbers game. “When the Harry Potter films came out,” she notes, “no one was like ‘Well, there aren’t that many wizards.’ Why is it that when it comes to Black films, we have to come to this issue of realism? Why do you feel it has a responsibility to be real?’”
This obsession with quantification speaks to a larger issue. Black visibility, to many white filmgoers, is something that they find palatable only in small doses that can be explicitly justified. If we disregard this numbers game completely, we implicitly declare that Black visibility ought to be boundless. We declare that Black characters ought to be represented in all walks of life, in any profession, with any personality, with any number of idiosyncrasies. We declare that Black visibility is something that should become so vast and so pervasive that attempting to enumerate the presence of such would prove as futile as attempting to count the stars at night.
And this, as seen with Mr. do Inferno, clearly does not sit well with some people. But why?
The phrase: “They will not replace us,” and its variations, while attributed to ideologies of Nazism and white supremacy, are not a far cry from the general narrative for which white people deride inclusivity in film. This statement is representative of a fear of erasure, of the belief that the visibility of marginalized groups spells the extinguishment of those who have always been societal frontrunners. While the proponents of the film version of the mentality are more likely wearing a Pulp Fiction T-shirt stained with pizza grease as opposed to a swastika or white hood, the seeming innocuousness of the sentiment does not make it any less concerning.
White is the default to people of this mindset. The addition of Blackness is, therefore, sullying an age-old recipe. And as the adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
And because this mindset proposes that Black people are not a necessity in film, the idea of a character resonating with a Black person because they are Black eludes many.
“Consider Tony Stark,” Reddit user math_murderer88 implores his readership. “Supposedly, white nerds are able to identify with a cool, handsome, genius, billionaire playboy who fights crime, but a black nerd can’t identify with Tony because he doesn’t have the same shade of skin he does? I feel like there are far more relevant differences between Tony and the average comic fan than just what his skin color is.”
The reason representation is important isn’t because Black people can’t identify with white characters. My favourite movie is Coraline, for crying out loud. I and other minorities can, and have, identified with characters that are noticeably different to me in terms of physical appearance, not only because I’ve been forced to through pop culture, but because race does not foreground relatability. But, representation extends beyond relatability and identification. “We all know how validating it is to see ourselves on-screen,” Cramer admits. “But, I think we should ask: What film could even capture all of me?”
So, in addition to quantifiability, relatability isn’t the crux of the representation question. What is important about representation, as Cramer poses, is that it “[gives] us a moment to pause and think about people we don’t always think about.” Representation is important, simply, because it allows Black people to be visible.
Black people exist. This is an indisputable statement. And, due to this fact, films attempting to nod at such an existence should not be such a point of contention. The fact that they are, that dissent inevitably occurs when movies like Black Panther or Moonlight are released, speaks to a pervasive and unwitting, but no less harmful, racialized line of reasoning.
When all white audiences see are white people, white people never have to wonder about the legitimacy of their existence. Seeing Black people on-screen, therefore, as opposed to the usual collection of white faces, feels like an attack. Like replacement.
But when Black people see themselves on-screen, in a media that so often excludes or hides them, amidst a world where they are overpoliced and discriminated against and brutalized, they see legitimacy to their existence. Seeing themselves on-screen, therefore, as opposed to the usual collection of white faces, feels validating. Like a triumph.
Film is a conduit of escapism. For a few hours, filmgoers can melt into the technicolor dreamscape flashing across the silver screen and believe, wholeheartedly, in its plausibility. When Black filmgoers are able to see themselves thriving upon this dreamscape, it allows them to imagine themselves upon a spectrum of endless possibilities. It dares them to believe that they can be whatever and whoever they choose.
Tiana struck such a chord with me because, in seeing her, I felt seen. I was an avid filmgoer and was used to seeing white faces, doing any range of activities from being superheroes to travelling fictional worlds. The sight of Tiana, an undeniably Black woman, emboldened my very existence. The sight of Tiana reminded me that I contain multitudes, that I had the right to imagine myself in the ways that white children did.
I looked back at Steve after I’d heard his statement, my face expressionless, my eyes unblinking. He was smirking, I remember, as if he’d somehow got me. As if this accusation would incentivize me to bow down from my declaration of love for Tiana.
I merely shrugged my shoulders, unchanged in my choice of favourite Disney princess.
I looked past Steve and watched the people skating by. I can’t remember if we spoke after that.
Image Source: Disney Movies, https://movies.disney.com/princess-and-the-frog-gallery
Do Inferno, Barco. “The 2019 Oscars Broke Boundaries, Especially for Women of Colour.” Facebook, Mar. 2019, https://www.facebook.com/search/str/The+2019+Oscars+broke+boundaries%2C+especially+for+women+of+color/keywords_search.
Hunt, Darnell, Ana-Christina Ramon, Michael Tran, Amberia Sargent, Carmella Stoddard and Debanjan Roychoudhury. Hollywood Diversity Report 2018. UCLA (2018).
Math_murderer88. “What’s with This Idea That You Can’t Relate to a Superhero If They Aren’t the Same Race as You?” Reddit, Jan. 2019, www.reddit.com/r/Marvel/comments/abcmnl/whats_with_this_idea_that_you_cant_relate_to_a/.
“Representation.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press.